Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Koreshi Chronicles – Chapter VII: One or Two Useful Skills

20 Winter 1927

Lyta lay contorted in the longrunner’s wheel well, feeling for the coupling by touch. It would have been easier to remove the wheel entirely, but that would have taken time, and none of them were sure whether the rovers would be back with reinforcements.

“Do you have it?” Fabian’s lilting voice echoed under the longrunner chassis.

“Almost,” Lyta called back. Her arm strained against the force of the cable she held in her left arm while her right hunted for the crease in which it was supposed to rest. She wouldn’t have been able to do it at all if Fabian hadn’t been tethering the other end. She closed her eyes and felt with her right hand, a little further, a little further… there. She hooked the cable against the indentation. “Got it!” she called out.

She felt the cable go even tauter as Fabian pressed it in on his end. “Okay, tighten it up!”

Lyta ratcheted the connector in place while Fabian did the same on his end, and she felt the massive wheel shift beneath her. The rovers had hit so hard that two of the normally stable longrunner wheels had been knocked out of alignment and several of the couplings that secured them had fallen completely out. It wasn’t the only thing that needed fixing, but it was the most urgent.

Lyta concentrated on getting the tension right. It was hard, working without seeing what she was doing, but it wasn’t the first time, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be the last. At least she had Fabian to guide her.

“Okay, good,” he called after a moment. “Come on down outta there.”

Lyta scrambled out of the wheel well and joined the caravan’s mechanic to inspect their handiwork. It looked good. It looked like it would hold.

“You’re pretty handy with a wrench,” said Fabian, wiping his greasy hands on his coveralls.

Lyta matched his motion and nodded. “You too.”

Fabian gave her a grin, for a moment forgetting the carnage around them. “True,” he agreed, “but I’m paid to be good with a wrench. You, I get the feeling you’re paid for something else.”

Lyta shrugged. “I’m paid to be useful. Right now, I figure the most useful thing I can be doing is this.” In truth, she would have rather been with her brothers. She’d heard their report that they were still alive, but she didn’t know their condition, and they were closer to the enemy than she was. If the rovers came back now, they’d be sitting ducks.

“I’m not gonna complain,” said Fabian, scanning the underside of the longrunner chassis for more damage. “Certainly makes my life easier.” He caught sight of a long metal assembly on the ground and ambled over to it, picked it up, and hoisted it roughly into position. “Here, help me get this back in.”

Lyta went over to the far end and began working on getting the piece back into place. It wasn’t bent, which was good, but the edges had been pinched by the impact and needed to be realigned.

Fabian cleared his throat as they worked. “You don’t mind my askin’…”

Lyta concentrated on the piece of metal in her hand. “Yeah?” she said distractedly.

Fabian hesitated a moment. “Couldn’t help but overhearing before, when you said that you could get up topside in a minute.”

Lyta fiddled with the end of the assembly, which stubbornly refused to slot in where it was supposed to. “Yeah?”

“Well…” Fabian paused, twisted the assembly, and it fell smoothly into place with a satisfying thunk. “Cliff’s gotta be, what, fifty meters high? Sixty?”

Lyta let go and allowed herself a moment to poke her head out from beneath the longrunner. Down below, Benelice’s medics were still working on the injured, including their guide. People spoke in quiet, rushed tones, everyone hurrying to get the caravan ready to move as quickly as possible. Lyta let her eyes roam upwards, to the top of the canyon, calculating, before turning back to the mechanic. “Yeah, something like that.”

Fabian’s mouth dropped open. “But that’s impossible.”

Lyta shook her head. “Not really. Just hard.” The grade was shallower here. She could have done it even without climbing equipment. Maybe not in exactly a minute, she thought, not with people shooting at her, but close enough. Part of her was sad she hadn’t had the chance; another part was pleased she hadn’t had to run into the line of machine-gun fire.

“If we weren’t in such a rush, I’d say you should prove it,” said Fabian.

Lyta held his gaze. “If we weren’t in such a rush, I’d probably take you up on that.”

For a moment, they simply looked at each other. Then Fabian broke the tension as he found yet another piece of metal on the ground and clicked his tongue. “Won’t be going anywhere without this,” he said.

Lyta saw the piece he was holding, saw where it had fallen from, and nodded. “Yeah,” she said.

Fabian moved into position while Lyta held up their latest challenge. “Maybe later,” he said.

Lyta sighed. “Yeah,” she said. If she was lucky, he’d forget about the whole thing.


It was amazing, Lyta thought, how quickly the mood of a group could change. Yesterday, the evening gathering had been boisterous and rollicking, full of Fennec’s tall tales, Miranda’s novice kuritra attempts across the tops of the longrunners, and Elroy Krog’s fresh sniffer meat roasting over an open fire.

Tonight there was no fire. It was too close to the border, Benelice said, and anyone might be watching. There were no tall tales tonight. The crew sat in small clusters, talking in hushed voices when they talked at all. A quarter of the caravanners were injured from the day’s attack. More were on guard duty. Several had been stationed near the remnants of the Wildcats that had been cajoled, coerced, and threatened to join up with the crew. They stood off in a tense stalemate.

There was no kuritra demonstration tonight. Miranda sat alone, sullen and angry. Lyta recognized her expression – she had worn it herself many times. It was the look she would get when her brothers or Jonas had been injured and she wasn’t sure if they would make it. She hoped their guide would pull through, for his apprentice’s sake if not for his own.

Lyta sat apart from the group, eating her dinner without appetite. As the caravan’s would-be chef, Fabian had done what he could with the tinned meats and vegetables, but there was only so much he could do in the caravan’s small galley. She was glad Lukas and Torgath had not been injured. She was less glad at how close she herself had come to serious injury. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, she had been able to busy herself with fixing up the longrunners. After that, she had offered to act as outrider, which also kept her mind occupied. But now, in the quiet dark of evening, the day’s events caught up with her. She could practically feel the bullets whizzing past her, so close she felt them heating the air a hair’s breadth from her skin. She shook her head. Close only counted in hero-toss and hand grenades, her father had once told her. And thankfully their attackers had not been using grenades.

It took her a moment to realize someone was waiting to talk to her. Fabian had entered her peripheral vision so quietly he was like a soup-bearing ghost. He held out the giant tureen of his ‘culinary’ concoction, ladle at the ready. Lyta shook her head. “No thanks,” she said. “I’m okay.”

Fabian nodded but did not move on. Instead, he cleared his throat.

Lyta raised an eyebrow, an effect no doubt lost in the darkening twilight.

“I was wondering,” Fabian said, and then trailed off.

Lyta held herself back from rolling her eyes. “Yeah?”

Fabian steeled himself and started again. “I was wondering if you might care to give that demonstration of impossible skill now,” he said.

Lyta sighed. “What demonstration?”

Fabian bobbed his head from side to side. “The one where you said you could climb the canyon in a minute.”

Lyta stared at him for nearly five seconds. “Really?! That’s what you’re thinking about at a time like this?”

Fabian held up his hands as best he could, given that he was still holding the soup and the ladle, a conciliatory gesture. “Hey, it’s okay. Things were tough, we all wanted to do something. It’s okay if you decided to do a little boasting. We won’t hold it against you.”

A few meters behind Fabian, Lyta picked out Fennec’s flaming red hair pointed in her direction. She refocused her attention. “You put him up to this, didn’t you?”

Fennec’s voice was perfectly neutral. “No idea what you’re talkin’ about,” she said.

Lyta groaned. “See if I ever give you training tips again,” she muttered to herself. She turned her attention back to Fabian. “It wasn’t a boast,” she said.

“Well…” said Fabian hesitantly. “You can’t really expect us to believe that you could have climbed out of the canyon in a minute. Not possible.”

“I don’t see anywhere to demonstrate,” Lyta said flatly.

Fabian tsked at her and gestured with his ladle hand, dripping soup on the rocky ground. “We’re practically in the mountains,” he said. “Plenty of places for a demonstration.”

Lyta looked around her, really looked, for the first time in hours. She was forced to admit the mechanic had a point. As they’d been driving north all afternoon, the foothills had become larger, craggier. There would be plenty of places to climb and even do some running… if she were in the mood.

She sighed. “Okay, point taken. What would I get if I proved to you I could do it?”

Fabian looked shocked at the suggestion. “Get?” he asked. “You would get the satisfaction of all of us knowing you could do the impossible!”

Lyta shook her head. “I don’t need bragging rights. I have enough of them already. And, quite frankly, I don’t care whether you think I can do it.”

Fabian gave her a chiding look. “You wound me,” he said. “What do you want?”

Lyta considered this. She looked around her more carefully, at the jutting rocks and slopes. Yes, there were plenty of places she could demonstrate… if she wanted to. “A hundred dinar,” she suggested. “To get to the top of that ridge.”

“In a minute?” Fabian pressed.

The cliff she’d picked was more or less the same height as the canyon had been, more or less the same pitch. She wouldn’t need climbing equipment, and she might even be able to run up parts of it. “Yeah,” she agreed.

Fabian looked where she’d pointed, evaluating the impossibility of Lyta’s boast. He nodded. “A hundred dinar,” he agreed. “I’ll eat well at the next village we come to.”

“What are we betting on?” The voice cut in from a nearby huddle of caravaners. A Badlander with short black hair and a scar across his forehead poked his head out of the group in curiosity.

“Ryss is gonna climb that wall in a minute,” Fabian put in before Lyta could respond. “Or so she says. I’ve got a hundred dinar that she can’t.”

The man scoffed. “Impossible,” he said. “Cliff’s gotta be sixty meters high.”

Lyta stared at him, feeling the rise of competition come to her. “You don’t think I can do it, I’ll take your money too,” she said.

The Badlander regarded her a moment. “Yeah,” he said. “Except it’s me that’ll be taking your money.”

The betting came quicker now, mostly between the caravanners. Lyta caught sight of Fennec’s unmistakable hair in the middle of the heaviest clutch of betting, her hands moving quickly as she pointed from one to another. It seemed like most of the crew had gotten themselves involved, and even a few of the captured rovers wanted in on the action. Lyta wondered what she had gotten herself into.

As the pressure mounted, Lyta looked over her target. In truth, she wasn’t certain she could do it in exactly one minute. A minute and a quarter, sure. But she’d picked a hard target precisely to give herself a challenge, and now that she was betting… Well, if she wanted to bet on a sure thing, she’d start working for Jimmy Croyden. She’d just have to be good enough.

Fennec was still in rapid-fire discussion with several of the caravan crew. She’d managed to accumulate a number of small pieces of paper, which she clutched possessively in her left hand. “I haven’t forgotten about you,” Lyta called out. “I’ll get you back for this.”

Fennec shrugged. “For what? If you’re as good as you say you are, you’re gonna make a ton of money for sixty seconds of work. Seems like the sorta thing you should be thanking me for, not blaming me!” And then, as quickly as that, she was swept back into her dealings.

Lyta rolled her eyes and looked around the group of caravanners. There was more energy in them than there had been since they’d started rolling. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

She caught sight of Benelice towards the back of the group and locked eyes for a moment. “You okay with this?” Lyta asked over the din of betting. “I don’t wanna start causing trouble for you.”

Benelice held her gaze. “If you did not want to cause trouble, you would have spoken to me earlier. If I stop you now, I suspect the next round of betting will be on who can make my life the most miserable until we reach the next town.” She paused. Lyta caught sight of something flying at her, and she caught it deftly. It was a pair of goggles with a built-in headset. “If you are going to do this thing anyway,” said Benelice, “you might as well look around when you get to the top.”

Lyta placed the goggles across her forehead. “Yeah,” she said. “Sure.”

Fabian tapped his foot. “Well?!” he said after a moment. “You gonna do this, or what?”

Lyta grinned and put down her soup bowl. She could feel her heart rate increasing, her breath deepening. “Yeah,” she said. “I’ll do it.”

She walked over to the base of the cliff and looked up. It was high but not as steep as it might have been. Her eyes traced out her path, which was growing more dim by the second as twilight faded to night. She shook out her limbs. “Someone got a stopwatch?” she asked, not looking back.

“I’ve got one,” someone said.

“Okay. Give me a three-count.”

There was some shuffling in the crowd as people no doubt crowded around the timekeeper. “Okay,” came the voice. “Three… two… one… go!”

Lyta set off at a sprint, half-running, half-scrambling up the side of the wall. Her hands found purchase on some of the jutting rocks and used them to keep pulling herself up and forward. There were no paths to speak of, but occasionally the wind had channeled grooves in the stone and she was able to run a few meters before clambering up a boulder or a jutting outcropping.

From below, she could hear shouts, both encouraging and taunting. It was almost like being at a gymnastics meet or running the B’Ti. She allowed herself a grin as she continued to make progress.

About halfway up, she hit a snag. The cliff face went almost vertical for a good ten meters and there was no easy way to run around it. Cursing, Lyta found handholds and began to pull herself up as though she were back at OIPA’s rock walls. She could feel the seconds ticking away from her. She was gaining height, but too slowly. It was going to be close.

Once she crested the top of the wall, she could the peak in front of her. A switchback led up to it, carved smooth by the wind and maybe even by running water. Lyta ran a few steps along it and realized it would take too long to run back and forth. With a shout, she practically vaulted between the layers of the switchback, heaving herself forward, and leapt up to the top of the cliff.

She spun around and held her arms out wide, panting. Below her, the caravan had erupted into activity, but she couldn’t make out anything distinct from up here. The only thing she could see clearly was a shock of red hair surrounded by taller, brawnier bodies. She pressed the transmitter on her headset. “So, what’s my time?”

Her earpiece crackled to life, interminably slow. Each second was an hour. “Fifty-five seconds,” came the voice in her ear.

Lyta took her hand off the transmitter for just a moment. “Ha!” she shouted to the wind and the sky. “Take that!” Then the pressed the transmitter again, and more calmly, as though it was guaranteed that this would happen, “I’ll have my money when I get down.”

There was a pause. “Fabian says he’s an honorable man and you shouldn’t doubt him, and of course you’ll get your money.” Another pause. “Though if you ask me, you’d better stay on the bastard. He has a habit of ‘forgetting’ when people give him loans.”

Lyta grinned. “Understood,” she said.

There was another crackle in her headset. Benelice’s voice came into her ear. “If you can take a moment from the logistics of collecting your winnings, perhaps you could look around and tell me if we are in imminent danger of attack.”

Lyta sobered. “Yeah,” she said. “One sec.”

She pulled the goggles down over her eyes and cycled through the vision modes while making slow turns. The cliff that she had climbed was high, but it was hardly the highest point even in their immediate region. She sighed. “I can’t see anything,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean nothing’s there. A lot of the area further north is pretty craggy. Lots of hidden paths and places where hostiles could be bunkered down and we’d never know it.”

“Do you see any signs of Protectors?” asked Benelice. “Or Rangers? They would most likely be operating with lights. They do not care about being detected.”

Lyta looked around again, carefully. “Negative,” she said after a moment. “No lights.”

There was a pause as Lyta assumed Benelice was consulting with her crew. It really was beautiful up here, she considered. It reminded her of the Badlands. If they weren’t still in the Alliance, she’d have been half-tempted to spend days up in the mountains, hunting and exploring and running. But it was too dangerous here, with the threat of the Protectors, not to mention rovers that seemed specifically targeted to her caravan.

“Good,” came Benelice’s voice after a few moments. “Come down whenever you are ready. I believe Fabian intends to bake you a cake.”

Lyta began half-jogging, half-jumping down the switchback. “I thought you didn’t have any flour,” she said as she went. “Or eggs. Or… well, anything that could make a cake.”

“I don’t,” said Benelice. “But you would be surprised at his resourcefulness.”

The comms went quiet, and Lyta was left to climb down on her own. The sounds of the caravan grew louder as she descended. About halfway down, at the top of the vertical wall that had caused her so much consternation on the way up, she paused and looked down at the crew, milling about animatedly. “Resourcefulness,” Lyta muttered to herself as she swung herself across the ledge and hunted for a foothold. “I’ll bet I would.”

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